Monthly Archives: October 2011

A dozen new books

I’ve been a sorry blogger lately, I must confess. I haven’t answered your kind comments on my posts or visited your blogs to write my own comments, although I have been reading everyone’s posts regularly. It’s just one of those times when my desire to read or my computer fatigue or both win out over my desire to blog. You probably know how that goes.

I did want to tell you about a dozen new books I bought recently, though. Two weekends ago my book-buying friends, Hobgoblin, and I took a trip up to the Northampton, Massachusetts, area to explore bookstores there, of which we found plenty, not just in Northampton, but in the surrounding towns as well. We visited five and could easily have found many more if we had had more time. It was worth a trip, and I’m looking forward to going back at some point. So, here’s what I found:

  • Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I’ve read rave reviews of this book, and I find the topic fascinating. At $5 for the hardcover, I couldn’t resist.
  • Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. I have a small but growing collection of books about walking, of which this is an important addition.
  • Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations. I love Solnit’s book Wanderlust and recommend it to everyone who might possibly be interested. A Book of Migrations is about Solnit’s travels in Ireland.
  • John Berger’s To the Wedding. I know absolutely nothing about this book, but John Berger is intriguing.
  • John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Art theory — who can resist?
  • Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. Another book and author I know nothing about, but I have vague memories of reading interesting things about her, so I went with it.
  • Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: A Polemic. I’m intrigued by Kipnis and by the title of this book. I’m hoping to find some lively, controversial writing here.
  • Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. I have heard about this book so many times on various blogs and in reviews, but I still couldn’t tell you what it’s about. I have a feeling it’s one of those hard-to-sum-up books.
  • The Best American Essays 2011. I just started reading the 2010 edition of this series so I’ll be ready for the 2011 one soon. This series has introduced me to some awesomely great writers, and I’m unfailingly loyal to it.
  • Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Budolph. For when I’m in the mood for some eighteenth-century fiction.
  • Laurie R. King’s The Moor. I found a trade-sized edition of this in very nice condition and couldn’t resist even though I have another book in the Russell series to read first.
  • Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory. I just heard an interview with Baker on Radio Open Source today, and it was great. Baker is my hero.

So those are my dozen books. I spent an entire two days in Manhattan this weekend but I didn’t step a foot into a bookstore, which is very unusual. But it was because my sister and her husband were in town, and they had other things on their agenda. Hanging out with my sister in the city was fabulous — it involved music, art, tall buildings, people-watching, Central Park, and Indian food — and I hope we can do it again sometime soon.


Filed under Books, Life

Currently Reading

It’s a rainy Friday night here in Connecticut; I spent much of the day grading papers, but the evening is free, and I plan to do some reading ASAP. I also have a book-buying spree to look forward to on Sunday, when Hobgoblin and I will head out with our special book-buying friends to see what we can find. We will be looking in the Northampton, Massachusetts, area, which seems to have a good number of stores, and I hope to come home with some good things.

I don’t think I ever wrote about seeing Jonathan Franzen and Colson Whitehead a couple weekends ago. It was a book signing at McNally-Jackson bookstore in Manhattan; there was no reading or talk, so I only had brief moment to see the two of them, but it was fun. They both looked tired, which isn’t too surprising as they were both involved in the New Yorker Festival and were at the end of a busy weekend. But both were friendly. Meeting Franzen was a little strange, though, because after he finished signing the book and I was ready to go on my way, he kept looking at me as though he expected me to say something. As I’ve written here recently, I’m too shy to say much to authors at these things, and I just wanted to go, but I had this strange feeling I was disappointing him somehow. Was I supposed to tell him how awesome I think he is? I’m not sure, and I’m probably making it up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to find some awesome line with which to make my exit. Instead, I just kept smiling and left.

After that, Hobgoblin and I headed over to the fabulous Three Lives bookstore, where I bought Alan Jacobs’s book and also one called The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts. It’s part of what looks like a wonderful “Art of…” series by Graywolf Press. There were several I wanted. Okay, I wanted the whole series. Then we hit the Partners in Crime just a couple blocks away, where I bought the next Mary Russell book A Letter of Mary.

So, uh, I guess I don’t really need to go on a book-buying trip this Sunday. Except, of course, that I do.

For now, I’m in the middle of listening to The Given Day by Dennis Lehane on audio. It’s been totally awesome to listen to. This is my first Lehane, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. It’s historical fiction, set in Boston, mostly, in the years after World War I, and it’s a satisfyingly long tale with great characters, dramatic action, and a fascinating historical backdrop. This is the kind of historical fiction I like, I guess, where there’s a strong sense of context that’s developed in a natural, convincing way and fully-fleshed out characters that get caught up in their historical moment but don’t feel like they are there only to make a point.

I’m also slowly reading William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I’ve had on my shelves for ages. It’s quite good, it turns out. I was worried that it might be a little dull, a little too predictable in its structure, and that I might feel as though I were plodding through one variety of religious experience after another. But James’s tone and style are wonderful. I didn’t realize this until recently, but the book is a transcript of lectures he gave, and so his tone is a little bit on the informal side of things and his descriptions and images are great. What I like most is his compassionate tone. What he wants is to understand, not to judge, and he is wonderful at explaining the psychological sources of a whole range of religious behavior, without dismissing the mysterious, spiritual, divine aspect of it.

I am also in the middle of the novel Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian writer. But more on that later. I hope you have a wonderful weekend everyone!


Filed under Books, Reading

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Full disclosure: a former professor of mine wrote this book, and it was a professor I liked very much, so I suppose I’m biased. But I’m quite sure I would have liked this book anyway, and I did like it very much. My guess is that book bloggers who like books about books and reading will enjoy it as well, since it touches on a lot of topics that get debated on blogs: how to choose what to read next, how best to do that reading, “serious” reading vs. reading purely for pleasure, the value (or lack thereof) of keeping lists and making reading plans, the danger of technology pulling us away from our reading. This book is also great for anyone who feels uncertain about their reading choices and abilities. I want to recommend it to all the people I can think of (and it’s a lot of people, including many students, and including, sometimes, myself) who have ever expressed a doubt about their status as a reader. My guess is that it will make them feel much better.

What I liked best about this book is how successfully it makes recommendations and gives advice without coming across as preachy or judgmental. Jacobs has very definite opinions on things, but I got the feeling that he would not mind a little disagreement. His main argument is that you should read at whim and that pleasure in reading should be your first goal. He also believes that you should mark up the book as you read — or at least you should if it’s something more complex than a thriller that’s not meant to be analyzed that closely. You shouldn’t worry about reading a lot of books; in fact, he believes you’re probably reading too fast and should slow down. He strongly dislikes books such as How to Read a Book, and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die because they encourage the mindset of reading only in order to cross something off a list. Rereading is very much a good thing.

But the tone that comes across is warm and generous, not scolding. (In fact, while I was in the middle of reading the book, I tweeted something about being absorbed in it but allowing myself a Twitter distraction now and then, making a little joke about his title, and he tweeted back, “It’s allowed!”) Mostly, he just wants people to enjoy their reading and to read exactly what they want to, because that’s the practice that will make reading meaningful and take the reader in unknown and exciting directions. To complicate the reading for pleasure idea, he talks about whim vs. Whim. Lowercase whim is “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.” Uppercase Whim, however, “can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” We learn, over time and by paying attention to our own responses and feelings, what it is we really want from books. We figure out when we want something challenging and difficult and when we want to reread an old favorite or to pick up a book we won’t have to think about too much. We figure out when to put down a book that isn’t working for us or to keep at it because we might come to like it later, or even because we think we might want to reread it in ten years and appreciate it only then. Reading for pleasure is not a simple thing — pleasure itself is not a simple thing.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on serendipity, the unplanned, unexpected discoveries when you read at whim and let accident guide you:

Fortuity happens, but serendipity can be cultivated. You can grow in serendipity. You can even become a disciple of serendipity. In the literature of the Middle Ages, we see reverence for the goddess Fortuna — fortune, chance — and to worship her is a religious way of shrugging: an admission of helplessness, an acknowledgment of all that lies beyond our powers of control. But in the very idea of serendipity is a kind of hope, even an expectation, that we can turn the accidents of fortune to good account, and make of them some knowledge that would have been inaccessible to us if we had done no more than find what we were looking for. Indeed, it may be possible not only to cultivate the sagacity but also the accidents. It may be possible, and desirable, to actively put yourself in the way of events beyond your control.

This is a philosophy of life as much as it is of reading, and I like it very much on both accounts. It can be wonderful when reading — or life — takes you in unexpected directions  (it’s much less risky when it’s reading we’re talking about, though), and it seems worthwhile to strive to be the kind of person who can take full advantage of, and indeed to seek out, the accidental.

Jacobs says his book is aimed toward people who find themselves struggling to read because of the lure of technology and their inability to concentrate after too much time spent multitasking, skimming websites, and following links. He does have a lot to say about this problem, but his potential audience is actually much wider: it’s anybody who likes to think about reading. It’s a book that will inspire you, I think, and inspire you not to read like Jacobs does, necessarily, but to figure out how to read like yourself.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading